Doing Ethics in Media

Companion to "Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications"

Doing Ethics in Media - Companion to "Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications"

Washington Post column on Redskins name change uses different standards for in-print, online publication

By Caroline Meintzer

Protesters in Green Bay before a September game. Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

On Oct. 7, 2013, The Washington Post ran an article in their printed newspaper that included an editorial by Dana Milbank. Milbank’s editorial called out the Washington Redskins’ team name for being racist, and he further illustrated his point by asking people to compare the Redskins name to other racial epithets. In print, he wrote:

To see whether it’s right to use ‘Redskins’ as a mascot, NFL owners gathering in Georgetown on Tuesday for their fall meeting should substitute some other common racial epithets for Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and Jews and see how they would sound. That would be enough to send anybody to the shotgun formation.

The online version, however, ran a bit differently:

“To see whether it’s right to use ‘Redskins’ as a mascot, NFL owners gathering in Georgetown on Tuesday for their fall meeting should substitute some other common racial epithets and see how they would sound: The Washington Wetbacks? The Houston Hymies? The Chicago Chinks? Or perhaps the New York Niggers? That would be enough to send anybody to the shotgun formation.”


What’s your problem?
Do the same ethical standards apply to the print and online versions of The Washington Post (or any newspaper for that matter)?


Why not follow the rules?
Rules and practices seem hazy regarding the consistency between online and printed journalism. Many media organizations in their practices have drawn a difference between the two, and often that decision seems to be made based on getting more web clicks than out of actual ethical decision-making.

Despite actual practices, many organization and journalists have spoken in promotion of a consistency across platforms for journalism. They say what is justified and unjustified in print should find the same rules online. The Poynter Institute has upheld through various articles and conferences that journalistic principles should be constant across the board. In other words, journalists are journalists no matter what they’re writing for.

These guidelines haven’t been the case for major news organizations, though. In the Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, Chris Roberts’s article, “Fit to post but not fit to print,” explains an inconsistency within the New York Times’ promise, “All the news fit to print.” In 2012, the Times published a photo online of a dying diplomat that it wouldn’t publish in the paper, which goes against the very grain of the promise to keep all news within the ethical margins applied to their print paper. They didn’t even offer a warning online about the graphic photo.

So, the rules generally point to holding the same ethical principles across the board; however, however most media outlets don’t seem to follow them.


Who wins, who loses?
By publishing different versions of the story on different mediums, readers are being impacted in different ways. For someone reading the print version, perhaps he or she is winning by not reading a few obscene words at the breakfast table. But then again, maybe he’s losing because the story’s point against the NFL team name, the Redskins, isn’t driven home as strongly without the obscene words. The newspaper, The Washington Post, loses because it lacks consistency across all of its media platforms. It seems to be generalizing its paper and web readers by saying what is and isn’t appropriate for them. It could be argued that it’s stereotyping readers on the web to want obscenity and something extreme and that those reading print are conservative and might have a panic attack about reading an offensive term in the paper.

The Washington Post wins a small battle by not offending readers with its print version of the article, but they lose a larger one by stereotyping their readers and fracturing their ethical standards along lines of different mediums.


What’s it worth?
The idea behind changing the article for print is to minimize harm, one of the major tenants of the SPJ codes. By keeping the print article rather tame, the Post is trying to uphold values of compassion and good taste. However, do those values of compassion change when the readership changes? Is that value worth the same online as it is in print?

For me, this is where I make my case. I think those values should be consistent across the board. Whatever we stand for, whether it’s compassion to the readers by avoiding derogatory terms, or if it’s truth and openness, regardless of the potential ability to offend, we must stand for it on every branch of our organization.

I believe The Washington Post should have the same article in print and online because ethics should be consistent, or else they verge on becoming simple moralizing.

Furthermore, I believe that the chosen version of the article shouldn’t be the safe one that the Post used for print. In fact, I would have gone with the racier version. I know it goes against normal ethical standards for what’s printed. The AP style guide specifically states to avoid using derogatory terms except for in quotes and when pertinent to the story.

The whole point of the editorial, though, is to demonstrate the offensive of the team’s name. When you read the edited version of the article, the author’s examples barely resonate. You practically skip past his line to “substitute some other common racial epithets for Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and Jews” without a second thought. The real article hits you smack in the face. You can’t help but stop and consider his point. In its sanitized version, there isn’t any power, and it defeats the purpose of the article.

So I’d publish it the way it was originally written. I’m sure I would certainly garner a lot of flak, but I believe the rules of ethical journalism are meant to sometimes be broken (higher Kohlberg level, perhaps?). In order for this writer to critique an offensive NFL team name, he had to show its name in the context of other offensive words. I believe people are mature enough to be able to handle it, whether they’re reading it online or in print.

But at the very least, I’ll add an offensive language warning at the top of the editorial. That way, the people can decide it for themselves if they want to read it.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Jeff Jarvis on why ‘sponsored content,’ advertorials and other blurrings between news and ads are a bad thing

Worth a read today is Jeff Jarvis writing about the blurring between news and advertising content. He argues that advertising that looks like news content is bad because of:

  • Inconsistency in the ethics of news organizations that do this.
  • Conflicts of interest between advertisers and news.
  • Brand value losses for news organizations.

His bottom line: “My advice to news organizations: Move out of the content — and sponsored content — business and get into the service business, where content is just one of your tools to serve the public.”

The only dissonance in his Buzzfeed argument comes when he uses Google as an example of a company that does it right because, among other things, it bans advertorial content at As he writes: “Google is taking over huge swaths of the ad market by providing service to users and sharing risk with advertisers, not by selling its soul in exchange for this quarter’s revenue, as some news organizations are doing.”

Google’s dominance in online advertising is among the many reasons why more news organizations feel pressured to create more advertorial content, even at the soul-selling expense of long-term intangibles such as credibility and influence.

What’s missing in his sentence is the reminder that Google isn’t in the news content creation business. It’s in the service business — of serving other people’s content to audiences. It’s just the best middleman ever. But Google wouldn’t prosper without content to aggregate, and the battle is over how to value that content.

News organizations’ Faustian bargain with Google means the search engine sends traffic to their content, and Google makes money doing it even as it puts downward pressure on online ad rates. (Here are reasons in favor and against the relationship, an argument that publishers are really to blame, and Google’s response. The reasons really don’t matter, because this bell cannot be unrung, even as I used Google to find many of the links for this post.) Still, note that in Germany, after an uproar from news organizations, Google does not sell advertising on its news site and can only provide snippets of third-party content.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Do journalists work for readers — or their (bosses’) bosses? A CNET and CBS vs. Dish example

Journalists running afoul of the real-or-imagined business interests of their bosses is nothing new.

As a technology columnist for The Birmingham News and Newhouse Newspapers in the 1990s, I remember being told I couldn’t mention AT&T’s debut of its online, searchable Yellow Pages because they competed for ads with the newspaper. (Seems quaint now, doesn’t it?)

The latest example of journalists not thinking of business interests came at the Consumer Electronics Show, after CNET sent a tweet naming Dish Network’s “Hopper with Sling” product was among its finalists for a “Best of CES” award.

As Buzzfeed explains, there’s a problem: CBS owns CNET, and CBS hates “Hopper” because the new digital video recorder makes it easy for viewers to blow, or at least hop, past commercials. CBS hates it so much that it and Fox have sued Dish, because (as Fox says) the Hopper has “the clear goal of violating copyrights and destroying the fundamental underpinnings of the broadcast television ecosystem.”

CBS executives made sure the product didn’t make the CNET’s final Best of CES list, which concluded with with this caveat:

The Dish Hopper with Sling was removed from consideration due to active litigation involving our parent company CBS Corp. We will no longer be reviewing products manufactured by companies with which we are in litigation with respect to such product.

Dish, of course, is claiming that CBS is evil for “censoring” CNET. (Others might argue that Dish has been known to censor, too, by dropping desirable channels over contract disputes.)

Ultimately, this seems to be a case of journalists not knowing that — whether they like it or not — their top loyalty was not allowed to be with readers.

Jan. 14, 2013: An update: Greg Sandoval of CNET has quit over CBS’ interference, saying that journalists “are supposed to be truth tellers.”


facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Can campaigning, commentating mix yet still be fair and balanced?

Oct. 7, 2010

As objectivity continues to be a concern and controversial issue among media outlets across the nation, Fox News has entered the center of the discussion.

Fox News has formed a contract with four candidates that are potentially running for the presidential election. The problem for many is that the contract states that these candidates, for the time being, can only talk to Fox News and no other network.

In a statement release by Fox News, the news outlet states, “All contributors are exclusive to Fox News. On occasion, they will make appearances on other networks — when they have books to promote — and in those cases their contributor agreements are suspended during that period. Fox News has made rare exceptions for various contributors in terms of appearances on other networks, but instances are few and far between.” Continue reading

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

CNN’s Sanchez runs his mouth, loses his job: Is that ethical?

October 5, 2010

CNN news anchor Rick Sanchez was fired on Friday after making some controversial comments about the network and comedian Jon Stewart, the New York Times reported.

Appearing for an interview on Pete Dominick’s satellite radio show on Sept. 30, Sanchez said his network, like the rest of the media, was run by Jewish liberals who didn’t want him to succeed. He went on to say that Stewart held the same belief and was a “bigot.”

Stewart, who is the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, has mocked Sanchez at least 20 times on his show in the past five years, the Times later reported. Continue reading

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Online lies, different results

Sept. 1, 2010

The early August story of Jenny, the girl who quit her job by using a dry erase board to post a series of nasty comments about her boss, lasted less than a day before it was revealed to be a hoax. (Jenny is actually an actress.)

It’s not the first time the guys behind the hoax have fooled people before. They say it’s fun to see the buzz, to create the online memes, and to fool the media. Continue reading

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

There’s illegal, there’s unethical…

…and there’s illegal and unethical.

Such is the case of Reverb Communications, whose employees in late August 2010 posed as consumers who just happened to love Rock Band so much that they gave it great reviews on iTunes. The company told The New York Times it did no wrong, but said its investigation and other evidence shows that the company systematically placed glowing reviews on products produced by companies it represents.

Continue reading

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Gork, Gators, Arkansas: Put on your ethics hat

Aug. 19, 2010

It’s common knowledge that it’s a mistake to take a knife to a gunfight. The same is true for reporters who wear a Gator hat to an Hog event.

Renee Gork made that mistake – and killed her job as a radio sports reporter –after she wore a Florida Gators hat to an Arkansas Razorback football media conference over the weekend of Aug. 14-15, according to reports from Arkansas sports blog The Slophouse and other news accounts.

Gork lasted less than a month as a host with KAKS, which calls itself Hog Sports Radio. She’s a University of Florida grad who says she wasn’t thinking when she grabbed the hat on Saturday morning.

Continue reading

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather